By Mary Kemu Shorun
Saturday, 24 September 2011.
Fola clutched the pink folder to his chest as though his entire life depended solely on it. The words, ‘My Clear Bag’ were awkwardly sprawled across the crinkled part of the folder. It was the kind of bag every other person was holding, for no reason other than documents being safer when they are tucked away into water proof folders. “Why you step on me?” an unfriendly-looking burly man grumbled in a harsh tone.
“I am sorry sir,” Fola quickly replied. The huge man was not the only depressed person on the line who was seeking to let out his anger on innocent people. In reality, the whole queue of people had some kind of frustration bottled inside, and they were all seeking whom to vent it upon. A khaki-uniformed man who had pele tribal marks walked up to the queue.
“Oya! All of you shut up!” His voice permeated the atmosphere and commanded a cold spell of silence on every one. He raised his stocky baton-like stick in a dangerous manner, as if to ward off unwanted noise, and also unwanted people. People turned their heads and focused on him, waiting impatiently to listen to his practiced speech. Another uniformed man who was shorter stood side by side with the tribal-marked one, and they both looked like two siblings who regretted being born of same parents.
Tribal-marked shot the other one a look; he immediately understood the gesture as if he had excelled in a body language training class with Tribal-marked. He began walking from person to person. His duty, besides taking orders from Tribal-marked, was to inspect everyone on the line for contraband items. His face was void of marks, but a thick foggy smell of cigarette accompanied him. His lips were charcoal-black, his teeth loamy-brown. He dropped comments here and there as he passed by everyone. Fola named him Inspector, in his mind.
“Ha! You fight lion?” “Your trouser don jump abi you be teblic?” “You wear suit for inside this hot Nigeria weather?” “Your face no even look like someone wey get school cert.” “You sef wan go America!” The individuals who were being accosted merely ignored Inspector, yet some looked at him with hatred and burning vexation. They were handicapped as they watched him give insults; they understood the fact that they could never get beyond the sky-high embassy gates without his consent and assistance. A diviner need not tell them to keep mute.
Tribal-marked raised his baton a second time and ordered everyone to be silent. His voice reverberated throughout the tiny shed in front of the embassy gates. “Bring out your GSM all of you!” People rummaged their pockets and folders to fish out their cell phones. “We will keep them for you until you come out of interview. Oyinbo no want noise inside his cubicle.” He had barely concluded his statement; a phone’s shrill wail diverted the attention of both uniformed men.
“That is what we are saying. We no want you to break oyinbo’s ear drum with the deafening ring tone volumes of your fake China phones. Where de victim?”
A stoutly-built bespectacled man walked briskly out of his position on the line. He was number five. Everyone felt immense pity for him; he would have to return to the back of the line and await his turn again. The ostensibly endless line had extended past the tiny shed and had spilled over into the vast expanse of land whose cover was fast becoming the blazing sun. “Your punishment is very simple, Mr John Doe. Just drop the handset and pay for its upkeep before going back to queue.” The man held out three crisp twenty-naira notes and handed them to Tribal-marked, then scrambled off to join the queue from behind. He had arrived as early as five in the morning, Fola later learned.
Fola looked on in sheer wonder as the inspector went round to search pockets and folders for knives and cell phones. At first, he did not search the ladies; he spoke into his small radio-like phone and requested for a female officer. But when he was almost approaching Fola, a six-feet-tall light-skinned lady attracted his attention. A see-through polythene bag held her documents together.
“Where your purse?” Inspector questioned.
“I do not have a purse,” the lady replied coldly.
“What? You think you can fool all of us for here and smuggle something inside?”
Inspector eyed her suspiciously before attempting to look into her bulging breast pockets. “Don't touch my breasts!” She screamed. Embarrassed, Inspector only grunted.
“Wetin dey there?” a tiny voice came from behind.
The female officer had come round to intervene, and after ordering the tall lady to follow her into a nearby cubicle for thorough searching, she whispered loudly to inspector to have the lady retain her position after the search. Ugly murmurs rose from random people on the line. It seemed unfair to have her retain her position.
“Sharrap!” Tribal-marked yelled again
Inspector finally edged into the space between Fola and the elderly man who preceded him on the line. He stared at Fola before placing his hand, which looked like a fatigued log of wood, on his shoulder. “My broda, me I like this your style o. You get pink colour folder. You tuck your shirt in well well, and you dey sweat like this on top say you wan do visa interview. This America is not easy o!”
Fola ignored him and fixed his gaze on another man who caught his attention. The man was there when Fola came for his first interview three years back, and his second interview, and now, his third. He had a pipe which was supposedly connected to his penis, probably also to his bladder. The pipe emptied his urine into the bag which hung tightly around his neck. Fola wished he were in the man’s shoes for some strange reason he did not quite understand. He wished he did not have to subject himself to humiliation from Tribal-marked or Inspector. The urine man could talk back at them as he wished; he neither needed a visa nor desired to travel out of the country.
Inspector had just finished poking at his folder and examining his cell phone when he looked away from the urine man. “You bin get your cell phone since? When I dey shout say make you bring it out?” Fola watched as Inspector disassembled the phone, and then he stretched his hands to receive his SIM card. “No,” Tribal-marked said. “We no suppose give am the SIM.
“You even get money for Blackberry,” Inspector laughed and turned to Fola, his bad breath almost choking him. “Oya, bring out the money for its upkeep.” Fola only wondered why he kept on saying “upkeep.” The “up” was totally unnecessary. He reluctantly handed Inspector a hundred naira note, the last note he had. He wondered if he would ever get back to Ajegunle, where he resided, from Walter Carrington Crescent, venue for the interview.
A few Chrysler cars were in sight, and it was obvious that the embassy officials had arrived. As soon as the cars vanished through the gates, Tribal-marked raised a latch and ordered the first twenty people to march in. Fola was initially twenty-two, but he had moved to twenty when the man with the cell phone and the lady who was being searched left their positions. He clutched his folder tighter to his chest and said a few prayers. His palms felt itchy and sweaty. He strived to keep his mind blank, to completely erase the memories of home from his head. He knew he needed to focus on the now and after, on the 747 he would eat chips and salsa in, served on silver trays carried by sexy hostesses. He remembered the words of his visa interview coach. “Do not panic. Do not lie. Whites hate deceit. They want you to tell them the truth. Be confident. Show that you have enough money to sponsor yourself.”
Of course he did not have sufficient funds. Besides spoiled politicians’ kids, how many people who desired to travel to America had sufficient funds? The bottom line was to leave the country and get a stable job and send money home and help your siblings. Fola’s parents had spent the last of their pensions, combined, to get him all the required documents for his travel. His girlfriend had also sacrificed an enormous portion of her meagre teacher salary. Besides that, Fola had pilfered funds from his mother’s purse, funds meant for crucial house needs. He had to pay the visa interview coach thousands of naira for his standardized tests and visa interview lessons. ‘Master of Abroad,’ the self-proclaimed American visa expert, also requested loads of money to set up a bank account that would be presented to his school and to the embassy interviewer, with Fola's last name written boldly on it. His work seemed similar to that of a money doubler; for every fifty thousand he received from each of his clients, a million would reflect in their bank accounts. Then there was also ‘Alfa One-time,’ the ‘prophet’ whose specialty was praying for people who wanted to travel to USA, Canada, or the UK. He did not deal with people going to Ukraine or Malaysia or Belgium, he always announced to his visitors, because God only called him to the North American-bound and England-bound members of the Nigerian population. “They are the ones who own the kingdom of heaven,” he would say.
Fola was not daunted by the prophet’s appearance when he first met him, even when his unruly demeanor and calculated dance movements seemed a bit scary. He jugged and bubbled and sprinted in his miniature palace, then ‘went into the spirit’ for minutes. It was during the process of going into the spirit, he warned Fola, that spiritual secrets would be revealed unto him. “The money is just ten thousand,” he said, after inquiring from ‘above.’ And Fola had quaveringly handed him the funds he had stolen from his mother’s purse, his younger brother’s tuition.
Fola now walked into the room and surveyed all the relaxed interviewers: three males, four females, each seated calmly in cubicles behind the tiny glass screens that separated them from the rest of the world. He quickly concluded that the first blond female, who peered under her glasses and sipped coffee at regular intervals, was the most inconsiderate. She frowned so hard her face showed wrinkles, and her voice was croaky and harsh. Fola named her Blondie. He would not go to her even if she called his number out loud, Fola thought to himself. She seemed too wicked to grant student visas. There were still two people before him anyway; the old man who was clad in an expensive embroidered agbada and another older-looking woman who wore a long skirt and a neck-high shirt. Fola guessed that she belonged to one of the conservative church denominations around.
“Eighteen,” Blondie echoed. The older woman raced to answer her call. “Your records show you want to attend a church crusade in New York. Is that correct?”
“Yes ma,” the older woman replied.
“Can you briefly tell me about your church and its beliefs?”
“We are Christian and we believe that Jesus is Lord and that –”
“Can you be more specific?” the inconsiderate lady was getting pissed.
“I want to go for this crusade because there will be power there in the place.”
“Ma’am, who is your sponsor?”
“God and Jesus."
“Thank you very much for coming. At this time, you do not have sufficient backup information about your church and your trip. I have attached a typed note to your documents. The note will tell you more about immigration and prepare you for your next visit.” The older woman shook her head multiple times and placed her index finger between her lips before dragging her feet away from Blondie.
“Nineteen,” a male voice called from beside Blondie. The agbada man walked up to him. Fola prayed hard that Blondie would not call him, but his prayers failed him when her voice rammed into his ears.
“Twenty please.” He rose from his seat hesitantly and gathered all of his documents in order of importance. He had taken them out of the folder: bank statement first, then I-20 confirming his connection with the school he would be attending, admission letter, and unofficial copies of his secondary school transcript. He stood before Blondie, hands clasped firmly together behind him.
“I can see you are planning to get a Masters at Texas A and M?”
“Yes. Masters,” he answered lamely.
That was all he heard her say – better yet – listen to her say. He figured she was almost certainly his age mate, or maybe she was only older by a few months. Why would he answer to her? Why was he this desperate? Why could he not find other means of succeeding in his country?
He did not answer when Blondie asked after his family; how he could prove that he would return home after his degree; how his father could afford such a huge sum in his bank account without a stable job; what his mother did for work; why he had gotten out of college for three years and still had not done anything good in and with his life; why he did not get a job after graduating from college. Why he was still standing there, wasting her bloody time!
“Thank you for coming. I have attached a typed note to th –”
The tacky and clichéd lines again. Fola was already picking up the documents that mattered to him: his transcripts and results. He left his admission letter and I-20 in the small opening under Blondie’s cubicle window. He simply did not need them all anymore. He walked on until he got past the gate and saw Tribal-marked.
“You get something for me?” he asked, revealing his cigarette-stained teeth. He was trying to woo a teenage orange hawker who had begun smiling sheepishly. When Fola did not respond, Tribal-marked hissed and handed him his Blackberry. Fola quickly assembled the phone, switched it on, and checked his airtime. It was all gone. After tucking it away safely underneath the documents in his folder, he turned to face Tribal-marked and stretched his right hand forward, extending each of his fingers as far apart from each other as possible. “Waka,” he insulted, while his hands were still stretched. Tribal-marked laughed a dry wicked laugh and ignored him.
His phone vibrated from underneath the papers in the folder. He fished it out and peered at the screen, the sun almost blinding him. Calvary greetings in the name of Christ... That was Bolu, his girlfriend. She was breaking up with him over the phone, with an annoying three-sentence text. She did not even bother to ask how the interview went. And to think she could involve Christ’s Calvary in the issue. How lame.
Mary Kemi Shorun was born and grew up in Kwara state, Nigeria. She is presently studying Computer Information Systems in Texas, USA. Her short stories and poems have been published in The New Black Magazine, Panorama, and Sentinel Nigeria